photo shoot – Modern Gypsies – off-camera flash & controlling the background

photo shoot & off-camera flash – making the background count

I got a call from Michael Saab of the Modern Gypsies to let me know that they were performing in a night-club in Manhattan, and would I be interested in doing some promotional photos for them? Of course! Other photo sessions with the Modern Gypsies were all energizing experiences. (The Modern Gypsies also featured in my book, off-camera flash.) Working with creative people always fuels the creative spark.

At the night-club, I looked around for interesting areas I could shoot some portraits. I felt this curving passage-way could be a complementary background for this one outfit. But it took a few test-shots and adjustments to get where I wanted to be …

This curving hallway looked like it might work as an interesting background. But it was dark, so I would have to add some light to it.

Here is the pull-back shot to reveal the lighting set-up:

Two light-stands. The one behind has a bare speedlight to give a bit of a rim-light. (I zoomed it to 85mm so that it didn’t spread too wide and light up so much of the walls.)

The 2nd speedlight was in a small softbox – the Lastolite 8.6″ Ezybox for speed lights (vendor). Since I needed to contain the light in that passage-way I didn’t want to use a larger softbox, and especially not an umbrella, since that would spread the light too wide. The smaller softbox was better suited.


equipment (or equivalents) used during this photo session:


camera settings:
1/20 @ f3.5 @ 800 ISO  .., manual flash.

The slower shutter speed, and wide-ish aperture helped bring in the ambient light – that red lighting along the sides of the passage.

To get my lighting setup to work, and make sure it all came together, I asked Irene to stand in the spot I had picked. Some readers of the Tangents blog might remember her as Bird Girl.

The vertical test shot quickly revealed that the main light – even with the small sofbox – would light up the floor too much. I would have to shoot this as horizontal portraits.

This horizontal test shot with the 24-70mm at 70mm, also told me that I would have to stand back much further with the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom, and compress the perspective.

A comparison photo without the flashes being triggered to show how much ambient light appeared in the final images.

I also had to do dual portraits like this next image.

But f/3.5 would not be enough depth-of-field, so I dialed my aperture to f/5.6 to give more DoF. Since the change in aperture would affect the manual flash output, I quickly dialed in the extra 1.3 stops of light via the PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller  on the TT5 unit on my camera. I dropped the shutter speed slightly to help compensate for the ambient light now being under-exposed by the same 1.3 stops.

camera settings:
1/15 @ f5.6 @ 800 ISO … Manual Flash



This sequence of photographs came together because of the background. Controlling how much the light from the speedlights spread, helped. But mostly, being able to control *how* my background appears, depended on the longer focal length of the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Understanding how a longer focal length helps to compress perspective, and thereby giving you much tighter control over what becomes your background, is essential for any photographer.

With this, the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom is an indispensable part of my gear, and helps shape my style of photography.

Both the Nikon and Canon lenses are stellar.

11 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Hi Neil,
    For the image of the two performers you told us that you increased your depth of field to f5.6 and adjusted your flash output to match, but you only decreased your shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop. (From 1/20 down to 1/15th/sec)

    If you wanted to maintain your exposure at the same level as the first image, can you explain why the shutter speed isn’t decreased 1 1/3 stops to match the corresponding change in aperture value and flash output.

    Thank you very much.

  2. 2 says

    Randell … I didn’t need to exactly match the ambient exposure between the f/3.5 and f/5.6 change in aperture.

    So I just went 1/3rd stop down in shutter speed. I was already so slow that I didn’t want to risk it lower than that.

    That’s the thing about this kind of photograph where the background is just context or color, instead of being something that needs to be exposed correctly for. There is no “correct” here. There’s only what looks good. And therefore I had some leeway in my exposure.

  3. 3Ray says

    I am like a dog waiting for the master to come home…I check tangents twice a day waiting for new images. And it is always worth the wait as your images always impress. I know thank yous don’t pay the electric bill but thank you for doing what you do.

  4. 4 says

    It’s interesting that you were able to use the AC3 on your camera. The ambient light looks dark enough that I would have thought that the camera would not acquire focus. In the past, I had to forego the AC3 and use a SB-900 on top of the TT5, just so the SB-900’s AF-assist red light could illuminate the subject enough for the camera to focus.

  5. 5 says

    As I’m reading this my thoughts are with you as the eye of Hurricane Sandy is about to strike your area. It’s frightening, as Its all over the News Live here in the UK. Hope everythything won’t be as bad as they are predicting!

  6. 6 says

    Thanks for replying Neil, hope you and your family are safe and that Hurricane Sandy passes without anyone getting hurt or causes too much damage.
    Best wishes.

  7. 8Barry Davis says

    Hi Neil, the Lastolite softbox on Adorama or BH website merely mentions just the Nikon speedlights (cold shoe). I was hoping to put a Canon 600ex on it…I presume there isnt an issue. I know you have both Nikon speedlights and canon’s so I assume they both will attach, correct?

  8. 9 says

    Using a Canon 600EX-RT with this softbox isn’t an issue. You can just use it like normal.

    Where the elevation is an issue, is when using a radio slave like the PocketWizard TT5. Since the PocketWizard triggers elevate the speedlight too high for the regular bracket (or lollipop) holding the actual softbox, you will then need the Lastolite hotshoe mark2 bracket to bring the flash and trigger to the correct height for the throat of the softbox.

  9. 10Kat says

    Hi, Neil,

    Just curious…would it have been possible to flag/gobo the main light so it wouldn’t light up the floor too much?

    Loved the shots!

  10. 11 says

    Kat … I think that controlling the spread of light much better would’ve helped. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be up against, prior to arriving .. and would’ve made different choices with the lighting gear and modifiers if I could’ve planned it like that beforehand.

    For this photo, I think a light modifier like a grid of some kind would’ve worked well.

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